More than one week past since the US assassinated General Qāsem Soleymānī. Though all-our war has so far has been avoided, as it likelihood is getting smaller with each passing day, the time which passed since Soleymānī’s death was anything but eventless. With one sudden shock all the so far hidden, yet known conflicts came to light, and all expectations were tested. In certain ways Iran proved to be stronger and more resolute than anyone expected. In certain ways the responses were strangely mild, which will surely serve as basis to portray the Islamic Republic as weak and a paper tiger. Though here surprises are yet to come to those, who still underestimate Tehran. But in certain ways Iran had to witness huge and unforgivable mistakes, and also losses in fields still very early to truly grasp in magnitude. All that, of course, has its huge impact on the Axis of Resistance, which also this week marked considerable successes, yet in certain key folders not for the benefit of Iran.
By showing a level a restraint, not giving in to provocations and securing support from the most important partners Tehran truly triumphed. More so by the enormous support the people in Iraq and Iran showed in the funeral processions for Qāsem Soleymānī and Abū Mahdī al-Muhandis. All those gambled on breaking the backbone and the resolution of the Iranian political line by increasing sanctions and agitated protests magnified to cosmic scales had to see that no matter how big the dissatisfaction might reach within Iran, if the country’s dignity is at stake the popular support is still very high. The cataclysmic shock caused by the assassination did more to boost moral and support for the Iranian government than all the possible gains in the JCPOA. By not giving clear reason for a full war Iran secured support and took measures to hit back. In that regard even the shocking responses by certain European countries, like Germany and the UK now work for Tehran’s favor, as now Iran has all the good reasons and excuse to step back from its commitments in the JCPOA and finally end the so far disproportionate adherence to a pact, which not only hasn’t brought any fruits so far, but even had little likelihood for success.
Iran also showed its resolution by hitting back to the Americans severely, which is so far relatively hidden from the public, but the lack of news in the West indicate that it was not mild. Iran indicated that it was only the first round and newer hits are to be expected by the Americans, while running up for the elections Washington cannot really accept a major engagement now. And the response so far hasn’t even reached the level of the Axis of Resistance, which surely plans its own retaliation. The last speech of Ḥasan Naṣr Allah left no doubt about that. That part of the events, though some theoretical allies like Russia in the meantime secured their own interests in the expense of Iran, was still relatively successful. However, with all the vows and promises Iran, just like its allies set the bar very high. So high, they might not just be able to reach up to it.
But also this week Iranian air defense shot down a Ukrainian civil aircraft killing 176 civilians on board. Such mistakes are unforgivable, especially in such sensitive times, when winning international favor is crucial. That mistake hasn’t even shown its true magnitude yet, as politics and international reactions are one thing, to which Tehran reacted well by assuming responsibility, but this will have tremendous effects on international standings and tourism for a country, which already has a reputation of irresponsible flight records and sad aviations history. Was that not tragic enough, on 10 January 2010 Sultan Qābūs ibn Sa‘īd of Oman passed away, by which Iran lost a key mediator in the region. Right at the time, when the bilateral relations were unprecedentedly bad, which might just leave a very hard legacy to the time ruler.
Many, especially in the West, questioned Iran’s resolve to truly hit back. The matter is indeed leaves one wonder for two reasons. First of all, would the Iranians risk an all-out war with the US? That is hardly negotiable that the American military capacity is far greater than the Iranian. Tehran might count on support by its allies in the region, and also by China and Russia. But regardless of the reasons if Iran attacks the allies might not be able to provide much and in this path China and Russia will surely not not go along. If Washington attempted an invasion not only Russia and China could be counted as ally, but even such regionals states as Turkey or Pakistan would surely oppose the step, as it means existential threat to them as well. That is, however, not the equation if Tehran launches a retaliation, which leads to war. The fact is that to a certain level Iran can safely hit the Americans, as long as it can be placated as legitimate occupying military target and does not involve other states. That is because Trump’s reputation even by the sheer possibility of war fell drastically and right before the elections he cannot allow a major military involvement. That would not only cause huge costs to a country, which went shut down for bankruptcy two times in his terms, but the wave of dead American soldiers will evaporate his chances of winning. One or two military bases being hit can be hidden to a certain extent in the press, but starting a war with Iran means a costly and long engagement. Which does not even has an endgame. Simply put, today it is very doubtful whether the US is still capable militarily to occupy Iran and put a new government there, just like it happened with Iraq. But even so, the resistance will surely be much stronger, causing exponentially higher losses. That gamble is not acceptable for Washington, but a simple knockout blow is not feasible. On the other hand the resolve of the Iranian public is very strong now, it demands retribution and is ready to take a certain level of sacrifices. It is enough to point to the fact he Soleymānī’s own funeral had to be postponed by one day in his home city Kermān, since the day of his funeral at least 35 people died in accidents in the processions. Which is ironically more than those assassinated by the Americans.
Secondly, would the Iranians really willing to hit back, whom should they target? There is no one in the American leadership, whether in the military or the politics, whose death would give some level of retribution. Simply there is no one with the same level of fame and charisma as Soleymānī had, and not just in the minds of the Iranians or the peoples of the Middle East, but even for the American public. And the level of brutality, the blunt simplicity with with Soleymānī was assassinated is not reproducible for the Iranians. Therefore a scheming terrorist attack against even the President would not be in the same level in the minds of the Iranians. That was openly pointed out in Ḥasan Naṣr Allah’s speech. Therefore the fitting response was named by him, and the same is communicated by the Iranian leadership ever since, by expelling all American forces from the region. Otherwise, as Ḥasan Naṣr Allah put it, “they came vertically, but shall leave horizontally”.
That notion, however, set the bar very high, and has a very interesting spin of obscurity in it, much resembling the tactics of Ḥizb Allah. Well, what is the term “from the region”? Does this only means Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – components of the Axis of Resistance -, the American Navy vessels, or even all the American military bases until Egypt? That is simply left blank. Much the same way as Ḥizb Allah promised to give up all its arms once all Lebanese territories are liberated and the security of the state is secured. Liberating all territories is one thing, but when is security achieved? This indicate a pattern where the goal in not specified, the confrontation can be prolonged to any distance, therefore newer and newer waves of attacks can come. All part of the same retaliation. But this also means the after some sort of victory is achieved confrontation can be called of. After something which can be celebrated. This is an adaptive strategy, very characteristic of Iran. The minimum of that campaign is liberation of Iraq.
All those, who gambled on crushing Iranian influence in Iraq with instigated protests and government change were shown a bitter reality in the funeral processions in Iraq. Millions joined the funeral marches for the memory of General Soleymānī and Abū Mahdī al-Muhandis.
The first step of the retaliation campaign came from the Iraqis themselves, who are understandably enraged by the assassination’s brutality. Which was a profound expression that the US completely disregards the very minimums of the Iraqi statehood. On 5 January the Iraqi Parliament accepted the resolution demanding full withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country. The motion from that point on would only allow training and advising cooperation with foreign powers, but no military presence. The spokesman of the Iraqi Army affirmed already on 4 January that all American military activity was halted. ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī Iraqi caretaker PM also heavily stresses ever since that there are serious negotiations with the Americans that they have to leave Iraq, which officially they are reluctant to do – another blatant incursion to the Iraqi sovereignty – and they say they want to renegotiate a partnership. In other words, they want a new deal reaffirming their presence. Trump even went that far as the US would not leave, unless Iraq pays the costs of the American military bases. Which is an incredible acknowledgement of the purest imperialistic occupation. And here he specifically meant the ‘Ayn al-Asad military base, one of biggest American bases in the region, and the one, which soon came under Iranian attack.
‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī has personal reasons to hit back to the Americans now and want them out of the country. Not only for evening the score after they instigated the protests, which eventually caused his downfall. Ousting the Americans now, could secure his post once again, but he has more reasons to be resolute now. Even Western papers cited him saying that General Soleymānī came to Baghdad on the day of the assassination for his own personal invitation. By this version after the hit on the American military base by the Iraqi Ḥizb Allah, and the American strike on the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī the Iraqi PM was approached by the Saudis to prevent a major escalation and settle the tension with Iran. ‘Abd al-Mahdī took on the initiative and invited Soleymānī to deliver a message to Tehran for readiness on the other side to ease down. If that version is true than the Iranians have full knowledge of that and it has the impression of a trap, in which ‘Abd al-Mahdī was complicit. Which is not only a personal insult for him, but also a very dangerous suggestion in a region so full of assassinations.
Therefore, now ‘Abd al-Mahdī does his best to prove his devotion. It is noticeable how deeply the narratives departed on that matter in the Western and the regional press. While the Americans clearly communicate that they have no intention to leave, the Iraqis continuously demand that and cite documents revealing that withdrawal is already on the way.
That means the even before hitting back in any way militarily the Iranians could have felt confident that they secured support within Iraq and now can push the Americans out.
On 8 January late night Iranians launched Operation “Martyr Soleymānī”, which is said to contain several rounds, depending on American reactions. The first phase was a specific hit on the ‘Ayn al-Asad base in al-Anbār province. Thought the Iranians only mentioned one base, the main Americans command center, Americans sources claim hit on a Coalition base in Erbil, Kurdistan, saying that only here were casualties all of whom were Iraqis. Since this version only appears in Americans sources it is important to point out that this might just be an attempt to mask the proportionate Iranian retaliation specifically aimed at the American Army as an attack on the international community and killing Iraqis. Therefore trying to obtain sympathy both in Iraq and internationally.
Strangely, however, while the Americans mention no casualties, and the Iranians talk about some 50 – while other unconfirmed sources go high as much as 224 -, Washington admits the strike. Iran provided footages on the base and the results, which do indeed look convincing.
This time, however, there is not word nor intention by Washington to hit back, and Trump tweeted that the Iranians seems to ease down. There is a striking difference both in the positions before Soleymānī’s death and this one, and both this reality and Trump’s agitated threats of total destruction. Which indicates that the Iran can go to a certain point, even though it highlighted 104 American positions in the region.
Whatever was the true magnitude of the hit, Iran did manage to hit the American base with ease and inflict damage. It did manage to rally support, and this shows a paths in which Iran with its allies can indeed harass the Americans until the point that they would leave. Or otherwise they have to wage a war with Iran.
Even more successful than that, which might just be the best indication that hit on the ‘Ayn al-Asad base was strikingly successful, reports indicate that the Americas started to pull out from all of Syria except the at-Tanaf enclave. They seem to abandon their bases around the Syrian oilfields, which they only recently built, though the government forces haven’t taken over yet. Given that for all these bases the ‘Ayn al-Asad base is the main depot and command center, this is a very matching pattern. And if that is correct, it is likely that Washington on the level of the Axis of Resistance expected increasing resistance and harassment.
However, a visit to Damascus on 8 January as well, might had more to do with that.
On January 8 President Putin arrived to a surprise two-days visit to Damascus. His first visit lead him the the joint command center, after which he visited the biggest Orthodox Christian church of al-Maryamiyya in the presence of President al-Asad and Orthodox Patriarch Yuḥanna al-Yāziğī. Later they even visited the famous Umayya Mosque in the middle of Damascus’ old city.
One knows Damascus, knows well that these are not easily accessible places by car, or by security convoys, and such visit normally would mean a nightmare for any security staff. The fact that it happened and was aired live at the time is a very strong massage to all that the security of Syria is greatly restored, Damascus is safe and Russia safeguards it. The message is unmistakable to Washington that amidst tension and news of military buildup in Lebanon, Moscow will not let Damascus down. And that message is applicable for Tel-Aviv as well.
As for Iran, however, it probably had just a strong indication. Yes, Russia would not let Iran fall against the Americans and yes, it supports it. Yes, Russian admits Iran’s influence in Iraq and if Tehran can poke the Americans out all the better. But Syria is under Russian influence. If the region goes into chaos Russia will vouch for Syria, but not for free, and will not share it with Iran. Or in other words, Iran can accept support in defense from Russia, but cannot count of Syria even as a battlefield against the US.
In such a way an important partner might have just snatched the most important ally of Iran in the region, since much of the Axis of Resistance was build on this tandem. The most to profit from this, however, is Syria, as it can benefit from the developments, can put pressure on the Americans and might just be able to balance the allies with each other, at least to a certain limit. After all, while the Iranian technical and economic assistance is highly welcomed in Syria, the ideological encroachment is much less appreciated. Which is quite to opposite to what Damascus has with Russia.
Mistakes and losses
Whatever the Iranian missile and air defense forces claim as being strong, capable and precise, it all suddenly melted away with one huge and catastrophic blunter. On 8 January early morning, after an hour delay, so right after the night Iran showered two – or just one – American bases in Iraq with missiles and was waiting an American response, Ukrainian Airlines’ Boeing 737 crashed only minutes after taking off from Tehran’s main international airport heading for Kiev. That left 176 civilians, mostly Iranians and Canadians dead with no survivors. Iranian authorities rejected the instantly arising claims that its own air defense shot down the plane, which later on turned out to be a huge and unforgivable mistake. Yet by Friday night, as videos started to circulate in the international press about the crash, the Iranian leadership came to the conclusion that the plane was indeed taken down by the Iranian Air Defense and on Saturday it was officially acknowledged by the Pāsdārān.
The same Amīr ‘Alī Ḥāğīzāde, who only a day before applauded his country’s missile perfection and promised new rounds to the Americans had to take the blame, who said he wished he died instead of the passengers. While taking responsibility by Iranian officials like Foreign Minister Ẓarīf is commendable, it does not alter the fact the Iran committed a catastrophic mistake, it withheld the truth for days and even at the end held the matter in context of the conflict with the US. To make matters worse, Ḥāğīzāde explained that the Pāsdārān air defense asked for a no-fly zone above Tehran from aviation authorities, but it was rejected. And that shows a huge disarray in responsibility and randomness is planning. All these factors, especially that right at that time the war situation, the most direct reason for the tragedy, was initiated by Iran, regardless of the fact that it a was retaliation for the Americans unprecedented banditry, will tarnish any reputation Iran has. Especially in that matter.
Surely Iran will comply with every international investigation and will be willing to accept the blame, just like it will severely punish those responsible, as it promised, these steps will not mitigate the harm done. In one hand by not being honest for more than two days, but on the other hand, and that is the more worrisome, that its air defense system mistook an airliner in full contact with Iranian flight control with a cruise missile. At least the is the official standing. That will cast huge doubts on Iran’s missile capabilities and the harm is multifold. The most direct and harmful result is that it will have a catastrophic impact of Iran’s tourism, a sector very promoted in recent years not only to create revenue, but also to show a different, way friendlier face of Iran. It served as part of the smile-politics to gain favor internationally, but now this will hit back. Also, after Iran took down one of the most advanced American drones with relative ease in the summer it showed power and proficiency. It created an image that the American Army should think twice before it tests Iranian precision again. But after such a huge misconduct this seems more like a myth by now. This will reopen the long and already stiff debates about Iran’s missile arsenal, which was so far so heavy attacked, for which Iran was always portrayed in the darkest light possible, and for which Tehran always vouched as being strictly defensive, a deterrent and a matter not negotiable with anyone. A position, which will be very hard to maintain after this, though it is a key matter from Iran’s defense doctrine.
Such an incident has a very dark connotation in Iran. The country already has a reputation for unsafe aviation, as many of its planes are American ones from before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, for which cannot obtain spare parts ever since. Even though Iranian made miracles with these planes, it is still not that uncommon to see domestic plane malfunction in Iran. The matter was so crucial for Tehran that one of the main points of the JCPOA for Iran was to obtain spare parts for the old planes, and whole new fleet of civilian aircrafts. These fears, though this tragedy is of a very different kind, will tarnish Iran’s reputation once again. Iran also remembers a very similar accident in 1988, when an Iran Air flight 655 flying from Tehran to Dubai was shot down by USS Vincennes of the US Navy, killing 290. The main difference is that the Americans shot down the plane intentionally and never admitted legal liability for the accident, President Reagan even promoted the captain of USS Vincennes. The tragic event was never forgotten in Iran and for long served as a political tool to prove American malevolence. Now the Iranian state has the chance to prove itself better, but it will not escape nor the blame, nor the suspicion that now Tehran took revenge. Though the plane was Ukrainian, therefore a revenge does not make sense, nonetheless that is the imprint much of the Western public will get, as this campaign has already started.
A mediator lost
Though it is a matter most significant for the Arab world, it is not insignificant for Iran either that this week 79 years old Sultan Qābūs ibn Sa‘īd passed away. The new ruler, Haytam ibn Ṭāriq already took the throne and in his inauguration speech he vowed to follow his predecessor’s path that is a major loss for Iran as well. Oman was a very effective and devoted mediator in all the Gulf conflicts. That was the state that facilitated the JCPOA talks and ever since the new waves of tension broke out in the summer tried to form a bridge between Riyadh and Tehran. As we saw an the end of the last year this initiative had some promising results, and it was still very much ongoing when Qāsem Soleymānī was assassinated.
After the assassination Oman instantly showed condolences to Tehran and Yusaf ibn ‘Alawī flew to Iran to mediate. He even took part on a rapidly conveyed Tehran Dialogue Forum 2020 in memory of Qāsem Soleymānī, being the only foreign participant aside from former Afghan President Ḥamīd Karzāy. The aim reportedly was to once again start a new mediation between Washington, Riyadh and Tehran, but allegedly this time it was firmly rejected by Tehran. At least until it hit back to satisfy the minimum of revenge. However, this now resulted in a very unpleasant gesture, which is now not easy to correct as the Omani Sultan died. With the new ruler, who is reportedly much closer in certain approaches to the Emirates, it is expected to soon set a new staff and new policies in the region. By this Iran might have just lost a very important negotiator, through which so far all major conflicts could have been at least eased.
In this light the loss of Sultan Qābūs might just be a big loss for Tehran as well, and with the mixed result this week, that does not hold promising omens for Iran.